Mastering and Mixing: What is the difference?

a mastering and mixing engineer sitting at a console and listening to music

Whilst most of us recognise that mastering and mixing are two different things, it’s often a blurred line that separates them. Although distinctly different, both are equally important and you cannot have one without the other. Mixing is the stage where each of the separate instruments and sounds in your song can be treated and processed individually. They are then combined together into a singular stereo mix down ready for mastering. Mastering is where the stereo mix down is enhanced, balanced and adjusted to ensure continuity across sound systems as well as an industry standard, release ready sound.

So what is mixing in more detail?

Mixing is the step that occurs once all the writing and tracking has been completed. The initial steps of mixing will include labelling and arranging all the audio clips within a session. Once the session is prepared, you can set out implementing processes such as equalisation, filtering, compression and panning to begin to bring your track to life. Initial equalisation and filtering will aim to reduce frequency masking and tidy up the overall mix between each element. Compression can then be included, where necessary, to balance out dynamic content.

After this, effects may be added such as reverb, delay, and other modulations. These are introduced to give the mix a sense of space as well as creating unique tones. Many of these effects will be controlled by automation in order to ensure the correct amount of usage at any given time within the project.

Mixing should be done on appropriate studio monitors in order to get a flat, uncoloured representation of the changes you are applying to a sound. The main aim of mixing is to get the project sounding as good as you possibly can. Finally, once everything sounds like perfection, you should mix down your project. If you are unsure, check out how to prepare your track for mastering.

What is mastering

Now onto mastering

Now your mix is completed, it’s time to send the project off for mastering. A mastering service will expect to receive a mixed down stereo WAV file. During the process, subtle adjustments will be applied using equalisation, compression, stereo enhancement and limiting in order to create your final master. These minute adjustments are added to ensure continuity when your song is played back on different sound systems. This makes sure that it will sound good on your home speakers or out in a big nightclub. Not only this, your music will be adjusted to an acceptable level of commercial loudness so that you are able to compete with the rest of the market. Upon receiving the master back, you should notice the added clarity and punch to your project as well as an increase in loudness.

Some do’s and dont’s to consider with mastering and mixing

DON’T try to master your own music. This isn’t a sales pitch, it’s genuinely never a good idea to attempt to master anything that you have mixed. The analogy I always like to use is:

If you cook a meal using the perfect amount of every ingredient, it will be perfection. If you then throw in extra spices because you feel you should be, you could end up ruining it.

DO make sure you mix down and provide headroom before mastering. If you skip this step, you will never achieve the results you are seeking.

DON’T attempt to combine these two stages. They are different and should be treated so.

DO treat mastering and mixing equally. One step is no more important than the other and without each other they are worthless. Invest just as much time and effort into both areas, regardless of if you are the one doing them or not.

TL;DR

Mastering and mixing are separate but make up the largest part of creating music. They are both important but should both be approached differently. Make sure you take your time with each and understand the distinction between them. Mix your music to its full potential and then have it mastered to ensure continuity within the market.

Comments (12)
  1. a i says:

    Great article! I think way too many people master their own tracks and don’t really understand that it’s ok to make your mix as finished as possible and the benefit of sending it to someone else is for that alternate perspective.

  2. Tim Dunphy says:

    Absolutely! Having a fresh pair of ears and a brand new perspective can be invaluable. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. jimmyw says:

    Thank you for the knowledge.. Is appreciated enormously… Thank u.. Thank u.

  4. Tim Dunphy says:

    My pleasure, I’m glad this article has been helpful!

  5. A.Majeed Baradai says:

    Dear Mr TIM
    do you recommend any high quality of plugins for symphony classical and New age music,
    Best regards

  6. sinred says:

    Muy buen articulo,exeléntemente explicado, Gracias!!

  7. Tim Dunphy says:

    Thanks, Sinred! I’m glad this was helpful to you.

  8. helptomast says:

    Appears to be a fine lecture.

  9. Tim Dunphy says:

    Thank you HelpToMast. I’m glad that this was of help to you! :)

  10. carlinskiiii says:

    Se agradecería una traducción al español si no fuera mucho problema
    Gracias

  11. Suprise says:

    Very helpful thank you.

  12. Charles Arinze says:

    I love your lecture it’s wonderful. Can you mix and master a song for one online?

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